Agitator, publisher, victim; the sordid tale of Juanita Nielsen saw an heiress turned activist fight for what she saw was right, before paying the ultimate price.
On the morning of July 4, 1975 Juanita Nielsen packed her bag to go to her first appointment of the day. Lipstick, some cheques, notebook. She was late, so she decided to go to the bank to get money later. A little past 11am, she opened the door of the Carousel Club in Kings Cross. There she was meeting a man who wanted to take out some advertising in Nielsen’s newspaper, NOW. She was never seen again. Juanita Nielsen was 38 years old. Even after almost 42 years and many, many investigations, her body has never been found. In South Head Cemetery there is a small white cross on the spot where she should have been buried. It was erected by her parents, who died, heartbroken, less than three years after their daughter. It reads: “A courageous journalist who vigorously fought for the rights of others and the preservation of heritage homes”. Juanita Nielsen died because she resisted the redevelopment of Kings Cross’ Victoria Street, and this makes her an obvious candidate for Australian Maverick number six. It doesn’t happen often in Australia that people pay for “no” with their lives, but when they do there is even more reason to listen, and to celebrate their chutzpah.
Contrary to our previous mavericks, Juanita Nielsen had no reason at all to become an agitator. She was the granddaughter of Mark Foy, who was one of the most successful retailers in Sydney during the first half of the 20th century. In the 1930s, the Foys were “the Great Gatsbys of the city. Wealthier than the Fairfaxes and just about anyone else”, as Peter Rees wrote in his seminal book about Nielsen’s disappearance, 2004’s Killing Juanita. Little Juanita was born in a world of Rolls Royces, mansions and motor cruisers, and at 12 she “looked like a French model and sounded like Tallulah Bankhead”. By the age of 17 she was posing for lowbrow detective magazine covers like Floozie out of Focus, and not much later she married a Danish sailor and moved to Morocco. When the marriage broke down in 1965, she came back to Sydney, where she bought a house in Victoria Street, Kings Cross, and started a local newspaper. So much for the story of a pampered, headstrong heiress.
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- Aussie mavericks: Fred Maynard – Our first Aboriginal activist
1965 was an interesting and slightly curious moment in Sydney’s history. That year, Robert Askin was elected NSW Premier and this was the beginning of ten years of “systematic and entrenched” police and political corruption, as the Wood Royal Commission into Police Corruption would write in 1997. The centre of this corruption was Kings Cross, already the suburb of choice of American GIs on leave from the Vietnam War. These men had a taste for heroin, prostitutes and gambling, and there were plenty of people in the Cross eager to oblige. When Askin came to power, something else put the focus on the neighbourhood. One of the first things the Premier did was sack the Labor city council and rezone the Cross from residential low rise to commercial high rise. Land here was now worth millions and developers scrambled to buy and get permission to knock down and build up and out. The jewel in the crown was Victoria Street, a leafy thoroughfare, the site of early colonial villas and later workers’ terraces, overlooking Sydney Cove. At the time it was known as the city’s bohemia, full of artists, students, musicians, writers and migrants.
A lot of the would-be developers also ran brothels or hotels in the area and a few big players had half a Monopoly-board full of houses in their back pocket. Getting DA approval was easy, because politicians were very much in the market for bribes, but getting the tenants out of their homes was another matter. So criminals, helped out by corrupt police offers, started intimidating occupants, especially those in Victoria Street. Bricks were thrown through windows, houses set alight and, in 1973, somebody was kidnapped. Arthur King was active in the Victoria Street Resident Action Group, and he had approached another Aussie maverick, Jack Mundey, who had slapped a Green Ban on work at the street. Not long after, three men knocked on his door and threw him in the boot of a car. It was King’s courage under fire and Mundey’s access to the media that saved him, but the day after he was released, he left his home and turned his back on the Action Group. The intimidation had worked.
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In the beginning, Juanita Nielsen had not been overtly political, mostly using her newspaper as a community notice board. But when Arthur King was abducted, politics was the community, and Juanita started writing stories that became more and more pointed. Early in January 1974, she reported on what became known as The Siege of Victoria Street. Over two days, 400 Green Ban supporters, residents and squatters fought developers and police, who had sent in their heavies to smash up the houses. Many people were arrested, like journalist Wendy Bacon, who received an orchid in the mail not much later.
Inside it was a bullet.
The message was clear, but that only inspired Juanita Nielsen. When a developer came by to offer her an enormous amount of money for her house, she sent him packing and wrote another pithy story, complaining that “they’re protecting snow leopards…but people don’t seem to catch the attention of such powerful preservation lobbies”, as Peter Rees wrote in Killing Juanita. Nielsen briefly became Jack Mundey’s lover in late 1974, but in early 1975 Mundey was removed from his union and the new bosses dropped the Green Ban in Victoria Street almost immediately.
For months the police interviewed a lot of people, except Juanita’s enemies. A 1994 Parliamentary Committee would later say that the adequacy of the investigation was questionable, describing the investigative attempts as “cursory”.
Juanita, alone but not deterred, kept writing, and by the time she disappeared she was on the cusp of getting another Green Ban put in place, this time by the CFMEU. In the weeks leading up to her murder, there had been midnight phone calls, people trying to bash down her front door and two attempted kidnaps. But Juanita had become, as Rees wrote, “a woman obsessed” and that cost her her life. Three days “after she was disappeared”, as Wendy Bacon put it, her bag was found on the side of the F4 Freeway and school kids picked up her lipstick, cheques, a pen and parts of her notebook, clearly thrown from a moving car.
After a week, the editor of the Daily Mirror got a call from somebody asking for money in return for Juanita. It turned out to be a hoax set up by a psychiatric patient. For months the police interviewed a lot of people, except Juanita’s enemies. A 1994 Parliamentary Committee would later say that the adequacy of the investigation was questionable, describing the investigative attempts as “cursory”. There was an Inquest in 1983 which returned an open finding, and apparently Strike Force Euclid is still active, but her body still has not been found. In 2013, Eddie Trigg, one of the prime suspects, died without telling the truth.
It doesn’t happen often in Australia that people pay for “no” with their lives, but when they do there is even more reason to listen, and to celebrate their chutzpah.
Shortly after Juanita Nielsen’s death, her friends and colleagues put out a special edition of her newspaper, with a chilling motto by writer George Bernard Shaw: “the ultimate form of censorship is assassination”. But Sydney has not allowed itself to be censored, so reminders of Juanita Nielsen are everywhere. In 1983, Phillip Noyce made Heatwave, a film based on the case, and a few years later the Recreation Centre in Woolloomooloo was named after her. During an anti-development campaign in the late 1990s in Collaroy, radio presenter Wendy Harmer, who was a vocal supporter, received a picture of Juanita covered in blood in the mail. She reported it to the police and was interviewed by two detectives from Manly, but heard nothing more. In the early 2000s, Nielsen’s house at 202 Victoria Street was State Heritage listed and the Greens launched an annual lecture in her name, commemorating the work of women activists. And last year, hip-hop artist Urthboy proved that even now she is still very much alive in people’s heads. All this attention is absolutely deserved.
It is difficult to do what Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata taught; “rather die on your feet than live on your knees”. But Juanita Nielsen did, and she more than deserves a place in the pantheon of Aussie Mavericks in return.